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Panic Attack vs Anxiety Attack: What’s the Difference?

June 17th, 2024

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Whether you work a high-stress job or have to deal with difficult life events, anxiety can be a common theme in many of our daily lives. Terms like “panic attack” and “anxiety attack” are often used as common phrases to describe strong feelings of being overwhelmed. However, these terms refer to different experiences and cannot be used interchangeably.

Understanding the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack is important in order to get the proper treatment and mental health support for panic disorder and anxiety disorder.

Let’s take a deeper dive and clarify the differences between an anxiety attack vs. panic attack to better recognize the symptoms and/or triggers and find appropriate management skills and support for each disorder.

What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is a sudden and intense increase of fear or discomfort that peaks within minutes. Panic attack episodes can occur without warning and often involve a combination of physical and cognitive symptoms. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5 TR) identifies the following as common panic attack symptoms.

Panic Attack Symptoms:

  • Heart palpitations or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath or irregular breathing patterns
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea (i.e. upset stomach, diarrhea)
  • De-realization (feeling detached from reality)
  • De-personalization (feeling detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control

Panic attacks can occur in the context of panic disorder, but may also happen in other anxiety disorders, phobias, or traumatic events.


What is an Anxiety Attack?

An anxiety attack is a period of intense anxiety or worry (past, current, and future events or thoughts). Unlike panic attacks, anxiety attacks typically have a gradual onset and are related to perceived stressors or triggers. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5 TR) identifies the following as common anxiety attack symptoms.

Anxiety Attack Symptoms:

  • Excessive worry or sense of impending doom/danger
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Restlessness (physical or cognitive)
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling on edge
  • Muscle tension
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep

While anxiety attacks are generally less intense than panic attacks, they can be persistent and interfere with daily functioning and routine.

Key Differences Between Panic Attacks vs Anxiety Attacks

There are key differences between panic attacks and anxiety attacks that are often seen in four categories: onset/duration, intensity, triggers/stressors, and physical/cognitive symptoms.

Onset and Duration

Identifying the onset and duration of the attack can give you a good sense of which type you may be experiencing.

  • Panic Attacks: have an immediate and sudden onset, peak within minutes, and typically last between 10-20 minutes.
  • Anxiety Attacks: have a gradual onset, can last for extended periods of time (hours to days), and build up in response to a stressor in your life.

Intensity

It can be difficult to note the level of intensity of symptoms during an anxiety attack. This is why it’s extremely important to work with a mental health professional to help identify scaling questions that will help identify the level of intensity you are experiencing. Solution Focused Therapy often uses scaling questions to help clients identify and address specific issues such as anxiety.

  • Panic Attacks: Intense and severe intensity could be described as overwhelming or debilitating.
  • Anxiety Attacks: Moderate to severe intensity, could be described as consistent worry or fear.

Triggers and Stressors

Identifying the triggers and stressors prior to a panic or anxiety attack can help give you insight on whether you are experiencing an anxiety attack or a panic attack.

  • Panic Attacks: Can occur without a clear trigger or stressor, individuals often state their panic seems to come “out of nowhere”.
  • Anxiety Attacks: Are often linked to identifiable stressors or worries within the individual’s life (such as work, transitions in life, financial stressors, etc.).

Physical and Cognitive Symptoms

Panic and anxiety attacks manifest through physical and cognitive symptoms. Understanding the physical and cognitive symptoms is essential for distinguishing between the two and appropriately managing them with coping strategies aimed at relieving the symptoms.

  • Panic Attacks: Often have more physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and dizziness.
  • Anxiety Attacks: Often have more cognitive symptoms, such as excessive worry, difficulty concentrating, and emotional dysregulation.

Anxiety & Panic Attack Treatment Options

Managing panic attacks and anxiety attacks involves a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (CBT/DBT); distress tolerance techniques, health-conscious changes, and therapeutic interventions. Understanding how to address these episodes effectively can significantly improve your quality of life and reduce the frequency and intensity of these attacks. CBT/DBT distress tolerance techniques for managing panic attacks and anxiety attacks focus on calming the mind and body during these distressing episodes.

How To Manage a Panic Attack

For panic attacks, slow mindful breathing combined with grounding techniques that engage the senses (such as 5,4,3,2,1 grounding technique), help distract from the intense symptoms of panic in the moment. It is also important to remind oneself that the panic attack is only temporary and will not last more than 20 minutes. Utilizing relaxation techniques and progressive muscle relaxation can be helpful in calming the physical symptoms present during an attack.

How To Manage an Anxiety Attack

Managing anxiety attacks begins with identifying and addressing specific triggers and practicing mindfulness/relaxation techniques. Staying present through mindfulness exercises and engaging in activities that require full attention (such as word search puzzles, counting by 7’s, or other simple math), can help reduce anxiety levels by pulling focus away from anxious thoughts. These CBT and DBT distress tolerance strategies are imperative in easing the impact of panic attacks and anxiety attacks as they occur.

Health-Conscious Changes

By implementing health-conscious habits into your daily or weekly routine, you can be able to more effectively manage both panic and anxiety attacks. Regular exercise is important because physical activity releases a chemical in the brain called endorphins, endorphins are natural stress relievers to the body. You can do this by taking a walk around the block, going to the gym or adding 30 minutes of exercise a few days a week.

A healthy diet can also influence your mood and energy levels. Caffeine and increased sugar intake can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety. By reducing levels of caffeine and sugar and replacing them with water, tea, or fresh fruit, you can lower stress levels.

Additionally, limiting alcohol, nicotine, and marijuana is important because these substances can increase anxiety and interfere with sleep.

Managing a healthy sleep schedule is essential in managing anxiety disorders and panic disorders. Poor sleep and sleep habits can increase anxiety and stress; maintaining a regular sleep schedule and creating a calming nightly routine can help as well.

Therapeutic Interventions

Professional help is often necessary for effective management of panic attacks and anxiety attacks. There are various therapeutic interventions and modalities that are focused on treating panic and anxiety disorders, targeting both the physical and cognitive symptoms.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is highly effective for both conditions. It is an evidence-based therapy that helps individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to anxiety and panic.
  • Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Therapy (MBSR): This evidence-based program teaches mindfulness meditation to reduce stress and anxiety. It helps individuals stay in the present moment and reduces the tendency to overthink or catastrophize situations or scenarios.
  • Support Systems: Building strong support systems is also imperative in managing a balance of mental and physical health. Joining a support group can provide a sense of community and understanding. Many support groups provide new coping strategies, therapeutic interventions and communal support.
  • Medications: In some cases, medication may be necessary. There are various types of medications and supplements that are helpful in managing anxiety and panic disorder’s long term and short-term symptoms. Speak to one of our psychiatrists to understand what options are available for you.

Managing panic attacks and anxiety attacks requires a multi-directional and supportive approach that can include psychoeducation, health-conscious supports, therapeutic interventions, and solid support systems. The journey to managing your mental health begins with taking one step towards change.

Leading Panic & Anxiety Disorder Therapists In Chicago

At Clarity Clinic, you can find some of the best panic and anxiety disorder therapists in Chicago! Our therapists and psychiatrists are highly trained and experienced in treating panic disorders, anxiety disorders, and many other mental health disorders, utilizing evidence-based practices to ensure the best outcomes.

From cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to mindfulness techniques, we offer a range of therapeutic approaches to support your journey to recovery. Book an appointment at any of our mental health clinics located throughout Chicago such as the Loop, River North, Lakeview Belmont, Lakeview Broadway, Evanston, and Mokena.

Can’t make it to our clinics? No problem, we also offer online therapy options to make treatment more convenient and accessible to everyone. Take the first step towards a calmer, more balanced life with Clarity Clinic, your mental health and well-being are our top priorities.

Book a Consultation!

Related Readings:

Panic Attack vs Anxiety Attack: Commonly Asked Questions

What do panic attacks feel like?

Panic attacks can feel like intense fear or discomfort, often with symptoms like a racing heart, shortness of breath, sweating, trembling, and a sense of impending doom.

What does an anxiety attack feel like?

Anxiety attacks involve feelings of overwhelming worry or fear, along with physical symptoms like a rapid heartbeat, dizziness, and muscle tension.

How long can an anxiety attack last?

An anxiety attack can last from several minutes to hours or even days, depending on the severity and individual circumstances.

How long do panic attacks last?

Panic attacks typically last 10 to 20 minutes, but the peak of intensity usually occurs within the first 10 minutes.

Why am I suddenly having panic attacks?

Sudden panic attacks can be triggered by stress, significant life changes, medical conditions, or sometimes without an obvious cause.

When should I go to the ER for anxiety?

Go to the ER if your anxiety causes chest pain, trouble breathing, or if you feel like you might harm yourself or others. If you are experiencing uncontrollable panic episodes lasting more than 30 mins you should go to the ER as well.

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